Theater review: STC Presents Extraordinary ‘Caroline, or Change’

Caroline or Change 1The Nashville premiere of Caroline, or Change is a powerful testament to the extraordinary talents of those who created the musical and the Street Theatre Company artists who present it. It’s one of the best shows one can see this or any year.

Director Peter Vann has assembled a top-flight cast and crew led by the remarkable Brooke Leigh Davis in the title role. The voices, and the acting, are superb.

The solid foundation of this mostly sung-through 2003 show lies in the rich book and lyrics of Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and the multi-faceted music of Jeanine Tesori (Violet). The impressive score draws from an eclectic mix of Motown, Jewish klezmer and folk music, Mozart, Christmas carols and other sources.

The setting is 1963 Louisiana. Caroline is a maid working for a Jewish family in crisis: Eight-year-old Noah (Dalton Tilghman) has lost his mother to cancer, and his father (Mike Baum) has remarried to Rose (Janette Bruce). Noah adores Caroline, whose thoughts are understandably preoccupied with concerns about her own children.

The youngster has a habit of leaving change in his pants pockets, so Rose decides she can teach him the value of money by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds instead of returning it to the boy. The unintended consequences of this decision soon become painfully evident.

Kushner spends a great amount of time on character exposition, but for the most part the result of his collaboration with Tesori is an enthralling musical that feels influenced by the irreverence of Stephen Schwartz and the wit of Stephen Sondheim. Touches such as a Supremes-like Greek chorus (the excellent LaToya Gardner, Charletta Jordan and Chessani “CeCe” Scott), the often comic commentary provided by Grandpa and Grandma Gellman (the delightful John Silvestro and Diane J. Zandstra) a singing washing machine (Naeaidria Michele Callihan, who voice possesses a compelling power) and dryer (Shawn Lewis in a wonderful turn where he’s also a bus and its driver) leaven the subject matter with wonderful streaks of absurdity.

Caroline’s rebellious daughter Emmie is played and sung with conviction by the sparkling Piper Jones (her character’s brothers are well-handled by Zavior Phillips and Carrington Charles Pitts). DaJuana Hammonds is also a standout as Dottie, who does her best to befriend Caroline and her family.

Baum gives another in a long line of strong performances as Noah’s heart-sick father. Bruce is incredible as Rose, capturing both the superficial and sincere strands of her character. L.T. Kirk plays the emotional beats of Rose’s father Stopnik perfectly. And Benee’ Jeanise Henri’ Wisdom is a beguiling Moon.

But at the heart of this show are Noah and Caroline, and in singing and acting Tilghman and Davis provide the emotional core for this production with their formidable talents and focus. It’s rare one forgets for even a moment that actors are playing parts, but these two are so good it’s easy and understandable to do just that.

Add components like Stephanie Walker’s choreography, Rollie Main’s musical direction of a wonderful seven-piece orchestra that includes himself, Laura Higgins’ detailed period costumes and Aaron Beck’s fine split-level set and there’s not a weak link in the dramatic chain of this production. It’s another feather in the cap of STC, where high quality has been consistent reality for quite some time.

Caroline, or Change runs through Sept. 30 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pike). Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors, with specials including a Talk-Back night, Student night, and Starving Artist night) and more info are available by calling 615-554-7414 or visiting www.streettheatrecompany.org.

Caroline or Change 2*Photos of Brooke Davis, left, and Dalton Tilghman by Heavenly Perspective Photography courtesy Street Theatre Company.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).